I grew up listening to stories of turn-of-the-century rural Central California from my grandfather Rees Alonzo Davis (1890-1976). He was the third generation of the Davis family to have lived in my present house—great nephew of Daniel Rhoades, who had walked into the High Sierra in early 1847 as part of a party sent to help save the Donner Party. Years later, after a small strike in the Mother Lode, Rhoades became a land baron near the shores of the now dry Tulare Lake, in modern-day Lemoore (where his strange mausoleum is currently a California historical site). He died, I think, when Rees was five or six, but his Rhoades portrait still hangs in my stairwell.
Much of my grandfather’s lectures concerned the law and his appreciative sense of progress. Without law in the wild days of his preteen years, sometimes farmers, he lamented, shot it out to adjudicate competing claims over water rights from a common ditch. He referenced a land of early epidemics; his daughter, my aunt, caught a summer polio virus in 1921, and lived most of her life in the living room of my house (d.1980), courageously struggling against a disease that had left her scarcely able to move.
My grandfather was born about 10 years after the Mussel Slough Tragedy (the inspiration for Frank Norris’ classic muckraking novel, The Octopus, which is about the tentacles of the Southern Pacific Railroad and its land grab from early settlers).
The Early 20th Century: Civilizing Fresno
As an aside, I had once reviewed in early 2006 a biography of Frank Norris for the New York Times (Frank Norris: A Life., by Joseph R. McElrath Jr. and Jesse S. Crisler), and remembered the authors’ description of the 32-year-old Norris’s acute appendicitis that led to rupture and death in 1902 in San Francisco. I recalled that passage in the biography during a trip later that year to Muammar Gaddafi’s newly opened Libya in 2006 to lecture on the antiquities; I had suffered from a chronic pain in my right abdomen for about a year (dismissed by doctors as another kidney stone). The appendix ruptured among, of all places, the ruins at Sabratha. And the symptoms seemed terrifyingly identical to what I remembered from the authors’ description of Norris’s, so I convinced my government “handlers” that I had a finite time to get back to Tripoli—finally arriving around midnight with severe peritonitis and in near shock. Hours later, we made it at last to a small Red Crescent Clinic. Hours after that, the staff found some ether, a government AIDS tester (required then before all surgeries), and mirabile dictu an Egyptian doctor in his pajamas and slippers who, about 48 hours after the rupture, saved my life.
Mussel Slough is about 15 miles from my house, and my grandfather often related the anger of early farmers at jacked-up freight charges, land confiscations, and double-dealing, in the agrarian and populist sense that there was no law other than what the “railroad men” said there was. His grandmother had bought our farm in the 1870s for $4 an acre, with the understanding that after a set number of years the railroad could buy it back if it were not (arbitrarily) judged to be developed. (I wondered, given the dislike of the railroad, why my grandfather mortgaged his farm in the 1930s and 1940s and sent his daughters to Stanford University for undergraduate and graduate degrees, given Leland Stanford’s rail riches. He later told me that “education” is a “life raft” for women.)
He talked fondly of the advancing civilization of the region, through landmark developments such as mosquito abatement districts, the systematic licensing of dogs and rabies vaccinations, the use of the Fresno scraper and concrete pipe to facilitate surface irrigation, and the formation of common irrigation districts run by the rule of law. He pointed to non-irrigated wild areas that were never farmed, to remind me what the land would look like without water and agrarians.
The law was in his view holy, and it was supported by an array of local community clubs and organizations—the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the Masons, the Grange, the Farm Bureau, the Sun-Maid growers cooperative—that sought to encourage civic pride and progress through self-improvement. Government employees—the postman, the county librarian, the dog control officer, and the local constable—were few and revered as public stewards who sought out public service.
(Another aside: The once beautiful Temperance Union fountain at the edge of our city park was long ago torn down; in its place now rests a totem statue of the Aztec moon/fertility/agricultural goddess, Coatlicue [mother of Huitzilopochtli], with the inscription “Viva La Raza” [“Long live the Race”]. No comment on the comparative symbolism.)
All of these milestones of progress were juxtaposed in his recollections with commensurate improvements on the farm and in the house: the indoor toilet that stopped the use of privies and cut down on contagion; the introduction of electric pumps and pressure systems that allowed deeper wells and cleaner water, and ended reliance on windmills and stale taste of water stored up in the metal tanks in towers. Culture fought nature to a draw.
The theme of his some 86 years was the notion of progress — that a mostly uninhabited desert (the landscape of jackrabbits, rattlesnakes, tumbleweed, and Jimsonweed), through the marvels of irrigation, the growth of small agrarian towns, and the rule of and respect for statutes, had bloomed, with steady material and ethical progress, into what he told me was “heaven on earth.”
I was the beneficiary (born in 1953) of the work of past generations. In my early youth of the 1950s and 1960, I can’t recall that we locked the house or perhaps even had a house key. We still used a shared open telephone line (my great-grandfather had strung it up with redwood poles and vineyard 12 gauge wire on glass insulators). It was also certainly a multiracial and intermarried upbringing, as Portuguese, Armenian, Japanese, Mexican-American, and Punjabi farmers both collaborated and competed with one another on their 40-80 acre vineyard homesteads.
That entire world, of course, is gone, a victim of wealth, affluence, consolidation and corporatization of agriculture, globalization, high-tech appurtenances, the postmodern ethos that followed the 1960s, and massive influxes of illegal immigrants. What I regret most, however, is the disappearance of the rule of law. In some ways, we have returned to the pre-civilized days of the 19th century. When I walk or ride a bicycle in rural areas, I expect that the dogs that rush out from rented-out homes and trailers are neither licensed nor vaccinated—and that fact is of no concern to authorities.
I remember that as late as the 1970s a harsh building inspector used to drop in and snoop around to ensure Romex wire was insulated in conduits and that outbuildings were not on-the-sly rentals. In his defense, the county man was trying to systematize rural dwellings, so that future buyers did not purchase hidden fire-traps.
21st Century California Reverts Back to the Wild West
Today I generalize that about every old rural farmhouse in these environs can be characterized by three traits: a) the house is a rental and not connected with the corporate fields around it; b) there are two to three families, in illegal fashion, living in ramshackle trailers and sheds on the property; c) the authorities don’t dare enforce zoning or health laws, on the grounds that enforcement is a bad investment of their limited time and budget.
If I find a dead dog dumped on the alleyway (as I have three or four times over the last 12 months), with a rope around his neck and his insides exposed from dog fighting, I bury him and pass on calling the animal-control people. In fairness to them, what would they do, run an investigation into rural dog fighting—in a state in which felons are routinely released from prisons and jails, and sanctuary cities offer amnesties? I suppose a Queensland with his face ripped off is small potatoes. (Does multiculturalism trump the ASPCA or PETA?)
Nor do I ever contact the state EPA or the county when monthly I collect baby carriages, car seats, tires, used paint cans, old Christmas trees, mattresses, and dirty diapers dumped on the side of the road—despite occasional junk mail signifying the address of the polluter. About 50 pounds of coils of old worn-out drip hoses are out in front of my house today, a huge pile of plastic junk dumped as if my roadside was a free waste site. (Is the theory that my house qualifies for public service waste removal and thus someone poorer, in our spread-the-wealth society, has a right to dump his trash there?) How can such a green state that refuses to sell plastic bags at the coastal grocery markets prove indifferent to the spoliation of its rural hinterland?
The lawlessness is characterized by two facts: One, there are so many residing here illegally from Mexico and Central America that the system is overwhelmed; and, two, ideologically law enforcement has become a political, not a legal issue. As best as I can decipher, it works on the following principle. California has the highest bundle of gas, income, and sales taxes in the country, but borders on chronic insolvency. Social programs, subsidized health care, law enforcement, and crises in public education claim most of the budget, and the result is that the overtaxed state’s roads, reservoirs and once landmark water transfer systems are under-capitalized and dysfunctional. Various agencies operate on a fee basis — informally of course and denied vehemently when asked.
Take traffic tickets. A broken California a few years ago jacked up the fines as a way to raise revenue (the majority of residents do not pay income taxes; the top 1% pays half of all state income tax revenue: the best and worst place to be an income taxpayer). Yet those who are most likely to be punished for unsafe driving or defective vehicles are often precisely newcomers without capital, without legality, and without familiarity with U.S. driving laws, and who would not or could not pay their fines. Suspending licenses as a result of unpaid fees soon became a political issue, with all the hallmarks of the modern social state. As a result, for a while longer, you can have up to 80% of your fines reduced, but only if you make less than a state-specified income. The law assumes the following: A state or local official understands that if he were to pull over an illegal alien, for example, he would waste his agency’s precious time and money writing tickets that either would not be paid or would be amnestied. Far better to target a soccer mom, who most certainly will pay promptly and help to pay state employee salaries and pensions.
California is hyper-lawful and lawless, completely free and without freedom, a condition entirely predicated on one’s sense of income and dutifulness. If one picks and chooses legal compliance, claims grievance, and earns ideological sympathy on the basis of race and class, then the law is negotiable; otherwise, he is a ripe target for bureaucracies and agencies to monitor every aspect of his life—on the principle that because millions now do not pay traffic fines and income taxes, file proper and legal names, and obey bureaucratic summonses, a few thousands must to the nth degree.
We are back to the Wild West circa 1890; and all the iPhones, apps, and Teslas cannot change that fact. But with one key difference: In 1900, lawlessness in California was a result of the natural wild and the frontier; today it is a symptom of civilized wild and ideology. Historically, the latter is far more dangerous than the former.